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October 14th, 2009
10:38 AM ET

Snowe: Health care reform 'like turning around the Titanic'

Health care reform has cleared a major hurdle in the Senate. Yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee approved a broad ten-year $829 billion bill to remake the nation's health care system.

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Sen. Olympia Snowe says the nation is facing a health care crisis if Congress does not act."]

The only Republican to vote in favor of the measure, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, spoke to Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Wednesday. Below is an edited transcript of that interview.

Kiran Chetry: You’ve certainly become a household name during this entire health care debate. They're calling you the "it" senator on the Hill right now. Tell us what it's been like for you with so many people courting your vote and watching how you voted on this measure.

Olympia Snowe: You know, I didn't consciously set out to be the only Republican, interestingly enough. It all developed as part of the bipartisan group that Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Senator Baucus convened four months ago to build bipartisan support for a bill, and it turned out I was the one remaining along with the Democrats, but that doesn't mean to say that Republicans don't have some good ideas that should be incorporated in this legislation.

So I believe in solving problems, in trying to work through the legislative process to get it done. It's a monumental issue. It's very complex. It takes time. It should take time. That's what the American people expect. We've just got to give it the time and patience that it deserves to work through the legislative process to get this to be in the best place for the best policy possible on such an issue that affects every American.

Chetry: It seems that's going to be a hard bar to meet, because there are so many groups who have their one issue that's make or break. I mean, take a look at even the way these bills came down. The Senate Finance Committee is the only one that does not include a public option, and there are many in the House. All three of their bills include it. There are many who say it's a public option or bust. Where do you stand on that?

Snowe: You know, I'm opposed to a public option, because I think the government has an inherent disadvantage, and disproportionate advantage against the private sector. And I think that we should leverage the private sector to perform by prohibiting egregious practices on the part of the insurance industry of the past and denying people coverage on so many levels. We're going to end all of those practices. At the same time, we're going to provide tax credits and subsidies and make a transparent marketplace through these exchanges for individuals and small businesses and to provide affordable health insurance. I think that's the preferable route.

I would support a trigger as a fallback in the event affordable plans do not materialize in any given region of the country, as we did with the prescription drug program. And we never had to utilize it. There was so much competition that it was never triggered. I think that's the preferable way to go in that regard. I'm surprised the insurance industry, frankly, in trying to engineer such opposition, because our bill did not include the public option and provides tax credits and subsidies of almost $500 billion that will be purchasing insurance products. That certainly should help their business and with almost 30 million new customers. I think that hopefully they should reconsider the way that they've gone about trying to provide opposition to this legislation.

Chetry: There's also some opposition from labor unions. In fact, they're planning on coming out again as well, because they do not like two of the measures in this bill. A part they don't like is the tax on high cost insurance policies. They also would like to see a public option. What do you do when there are a lot of competing voices out there, who are not going to be happy with whatever you ultimately decide upon?

Snowe: That's the challenge. I've said that’s why the last century was riddled with failed attempts, but we're going to have to overcome the difficulties. Just because it's a tough issue doesn't mean that it obviates our responsibility to make it happen. This is not a solution in search of a problem. We have rising health care costs that are going to devastate the health care system very shortly. I think it's undeniable, and seeing what's manifested in the health care premiums that have risen 131% over the last decade. Wages have only gone up 38%. Inflation is only 28%.

That gives you an idea how dramatic the costs are in health care. We have to reconcile those differences. Everybody has to pitch in. The insurance industry has made 500% growth in their profits over the last decade. As far as the labor unions are concerned, they’re talking about that excise tax on high cost insurance plans, and we have a lot of built-in mechanisms – we’re talking about plans either over $21,000 or $27,000 – so hopefully we can work those out.

Chetry: And unions don't like that either, though. Some of the members say they gave up higher wages in an effort to get better benefits. So they don't like that. The thing that was fascinating to me is that besides you, Republicans seemed to be sidelined on this health care reform debate. You said yesterday, “The consequences of inaction dictate the urgency of Congress," and that they "need to take every opportunity to show the capacity to solve this issue.” Are your fellow Republicans making a major error by sitting this one out?

Snowe: I don't know that they're sitting it out. They have offered a lot of amendments and I think they’re very good ideas that I supported. And hopefully the leadership …

Chetry: But in the end, you’re the only one that voted yes, everyone else voted no. They're not really taking part in anything that would ultimately become law.

Snowe: Right, but hopefully, that could change, and I think that's where I think the Democratic leadership and the president has to begin to build those bridges and see what can happen among Democratic centrists. I'll work to collaborate on different issues in providing significant improvements to the bill, along with Republicans and seeing what we can do to make this better, because that's what it's all about; it's understanding these differences. You're right to underscore the real challenge here is there’s so many different facets to it that it's easy to attack one facet and yet it's all integrated and interrelated.

I think we can work that out. But we just have to give this a reasonable period of time to do it, and that's why I think Chairman Baucus and the Senate Finance Committee was right in undertaking this process of convening this group of six – the three Democrats and three Republicans – more than four months ago. We were involved in very intensive discussions on these issues and it's reflective of how much time this issue takes and we should give it the time it deserves to get it right and to address people's concerns and to allay their fears. That's the only way I think that optimally we can get this done.

Chetry: When we had Senator Grassley on the show yesterday, he said the reason he changed his mind and felt he couldn't support this is because he heard from his constituents, who were very upset about some aspects of this, including the mandate everybody has to either buy insurance or a face a fine. He's saying he was just listening to his constituents and not everybody wants health care reform. What about your fellow GOPers who say they are just doing what their districts want them to do?

Snowe: I don't disagree with that. I oppose the individual mandate and I have made changes in the committee with Senator Schumer and I hope we revisit that issue as I said yesterday on the floor. It's not about punishing and penalizing people, it's about our responsibility to deliver affordable health care. That doesn't mean to say there isn't a problem. It's the rising health care costs. That's why I drew the analogy to the "Titanic." It really is like turning the "Titanic" around before it hits an iceberg. We have an iceberg out there.

If today's average employer family plan is $13,300 – in a decade from now it's $30,800 – we have a problem. We're expected to spend $33 trillion in health care over the next decade. We cannot reorder $829 billion within the health care system to make it work for everybody. I think we can if we put our minds to it. If we don't, it's going to overtake us, we’re going to have a crisis and then it’s going to be really difficult to turn this around on a dime.

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